ASTORIA — For most, Pete Seeger was a folk music legend whose sincere activism changed America through six decades.
For Keith Clark, who would grow up into a world-traveled orchestra conductor, he was just his father’s musical friend who insisted he call him “Pete.”
Clark — surely the most unlikely guest banjo player in the history of Astoria music — will perform at the “Pete Seeger 100th Birthday Tribute Concert and Singalong” 7 p.m. May 4.
The event follows a successful 99th birthday celebration last year.
Clark’s links with Astoria have been mainly through the Astoria Music Festival, which has showcased classical music. When he learned of the second event to commemorate Seeger’s cultural contribution, he contacted organizers and offered to join them.
And at the Clatsop Community College Performing Arts Center in Astoria he will play a long neck, 5-string that Seeger had made for him.
“I haven’t practiced for nearly 40 years!” Clark confessed. “I was so involved in all this kind of music until midway through college when I went the opposite direction.”
Joseph Stevenson and Unitarian pastor Kit Ketcham, who are organizing the event, are both delighted at Clark’s involvement. “It gets me excited to have somebody like that in the show,” Stevenson said. “This has really stoked a fire in him.”
Seeger died in 2014 aged 94 after a career in which he wrote or made famous the anthems which accompanied protests which changed American society in the 1960s and thereafter.
He began his musical career in the 1940s, and as a member of the Weavers was blacklisted during the infamous McCarthy era. During the 1960s, his music inspired peace-focused protests during the Civil Rights Movement and against the Vietnam War.
Sailing his sloop up and down the Hudson River in New York state in an individual anti-pollution protest took advantage of his celebrity status. Federal regulators noted his actions brought attention to serious issues. He also sparked broader interest in the environmental movement in the 1970s and beyond.
More than three-dozen North Coast folk musicians performed in the 99th birthday tribute concert in Astoria last year. Ketcham, pastor at the Pacific Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Astoria since 2013, led the event with longtime folkie Stevenson. Seeger was a Unitarian and Ketcham had staged a similar event at her parish on Whidbey Island, Wash., in 2009.
“Over the summer, I thought it would be neat to repeat the experience, but we didn’t need to spend the whole year planning it,” Ketcham said.
At this year’s concert, Clark will bring with him stories of his childhood, playing with his late father, also named Keith, who was good friends with Pete Seeger and his wife, Toshi.
The Clarks lived in a 100-year-old farmhouse in Ottawa, Illinois, southwest of Chicago. His father taught high school and was an active folk singer who traveled around the Upper Midwest collecting melodies, much in the way Hungarian composer Bela Bartok had done in the early years of the last century (though Clark had a camera and tape recorder).
He met Seeger through Folkway Records in New York and established stronger links as students of poet Robert Frost at a New England college. They played on the same softball team and encountered author Truman Capote and “beat” poet Kenneth Rexroth.
Later, he built a theater for public performances in their barn. “It was about the same size as the PAC, seating a few hundred. It became a real stopping-off place for great American folk musicians,” Clark said. It also gave a venue for artists blacklisted during the McCarthy era and African-American musicians.
Seeger made an impression.
“He was often a guest in our house, performed a lot in my Dad’s theater where they often performed and wrote songs together,” Clark recalled. He recalled him with admiration. “There was no artifice. What you saw was what he was.
“Pete Seeger would stay a week or two at a time. He would be playing at a folk club in Chicago and take a train to our house. My mother told me to call him, ‘Mr. Seeger,’ which we did. I remember being out in the barn and he said, ‘I know your mother told you to call me Mr. Seeger, but when she is not around call me Pete.’”
The example was lasting.
“He was a powerful presence in my childhood, as you can imagine, and although my musical path took a different direction, I count him as a great influence — he showed me what commitment and sincerity are in life as well as music.”
Although their professional musical paths contrasted, Clark said he saw a great early example of how to behave.
“I became a Viennese symphony orchestra conductor, but I never forgot. The thing that I have taken away from him was how honest and sincere he was. There was no phoneyness or commercialism. It was a serious expression of human goodness, and I hope that I have tried to copy that.”
The early 1950s saw the United States divided by Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin senator obsessed with rooting out homegrown communists as the Cold War with the Soviet Union rolled into high gear.
His “witchhunts” led to Seeger and others in the traditionally left-leaning arts community being put on trial and expected to denounce their friends. Seeger was among those with the backbone to refuse; it caused him to be “blacklisted — and cost him. “He had been playing Carnegie Hall, but because of the blacklist he couldn’t be on radio and the major concert halls,” he said.
After his father’s death last year, Clark family members started to sort through his treasures. “We discovered archives — inches thick — of correspondence with Pete Seeger. Hundreds of letters, all typewritten, and hand-made Christmas cards.”
One was especially poignant — a letter asking for a loan to pay legal fees. “He was asking a high school teacher for money!” said Clark, his voice choking slightly at memories of the McCarthy era. “It is a scar and a stain on America.”
Their tiny Illinois hometown had been a major stop on the Underground Railroad as runaway slaves during the Civil War era sought refuge in the Northern states.
But in the 1950s, racial turmoil again divided America. Clark recalled seeing signs at his town swimming pool proclaiming, “Black trade not solicited.”
Home movies of Seeger appear on his performance DVDs. Some, featuring blues-folk performer Sonny Terry and his nephew, blues harmonica player J.C. Burris, were shot at the Clark family farm. Other African-American blues legends like “Brownie" McGhee and singer Odetta Holmes visited.
“I didn’t know they were famous people,” Clark said, “They were just friends of my father.”
A city ordinance banned African-Americans from staying overnight in that community. By being so welcoming to all their musical visitors, the Clarks openly flouted this, even bringing performers to entertain at his school’s assemblies.
Eventually, Ku Klux Klansmen showed up with guns and burning torches. “They ran my parents out of town,” Clark recalled. They moved to Palo Alto, Calif., which led to his father teaching at Stanford.
Clark said Seeger’s father, Charles, a pioneer in ethno-musicology, was one of his own teachers at UCLA. He laughed, recalling stories of Seeger’s mother, Constance, a concert violinist who taught at Juilliard. “She had high hopes of him becoming a concert violinist, too, but he said he just wanted to have fun.”
At the Astoria concert, Clark will perform Lee Hays’ song “Wasn’t That A Time,” a song closely associated with the anti-communist controversy which led to Seeger’s court conviction and accusations of contempt of the U.S. Congress.
“It is the song that helped get Pete in trouble at trial,” said Clark. “It maybe is needed even more today.”
He will play a banjo that Seeger had made for him.
“Long neck 5-strings weren’t readily available back then, so Pete had Philadelphia luthier Sidney Locker make it for me,” he said.
He explained that Seeger had trouble singing high notes, so he had luthiers add three frets to the neck when they made his own instruments.
“You couldn’t buy them, they were made,” said Clark. “I remember when I was in seventh or eighth grade under the Christmas tree was a long-necked banjo that he had made for me. It was hand-made, not a slickly produced, commercial instrument.
“That has hung on my wall for 30 to 40 years. It has been a wall ornament. It is one of my fondest possessions.
“Now I am trying to play it and turn it back into a musical instrument. Anyone who says that playing an instrument is like riding a bicycle is wrong!”